Introducing the first concert in this year’s Kawai Piano Series, Australian Digital Concert Hall co-director Adele Schonhardt reminded us of the history of establishing live-streamed concerts over two years ago, giving many thanks to National Sales and Marketing Manager Warrick Baker for the loan of a Shigaru grand piano, which now has lengthened to an “unspecified time frame”. Kawai’s generous loan has allowed over five hundred concerts to occur since the first Covid lockdown put an end to concerts across the globe. That generous life-line has supported pianists such as Melbourne’s illustrious and popular performer Stefan Cassomenos, who tonight opened the 2022 Kawai Piano Series in Athenaeum 2. As a multi-talented soloist, accompanist, composer and festival director, Cassomenos always draws a regular audience of all ages, listeners who expect and always receive passionate performances of death-defying classical masterpieces and new or rarely performed contemporary piano works.
Gyorgy Ligeti’s significant set of eighteen études for piano were composed from 1985 to 2001, making a significant and innovative contribution to 20th Century piano literature and the genre of the “Study”. Etude No 4 – Fanfares – is a tightly designed gymnastic workout focussing on one polyrhythmic structure in traditional Middle Eastern dances with combinations of irregular dance beats (in this case a continuous 3+2+3 rhythmic sequence) balanced against more forceful and expressive melodic interjections. Ligeti had instructed the work to be “Vivacissimo”, “Molto Ritmico”, and he added specific varied expression and dynamic markings, with an altered whole-tone scale pattern repeated in perpetual motion from start to finish. Bare and colourful two-part melodic “Fanfares” were launched against the accompaniment. Cassomenos never paused for breath through the journey as hands swapped melody and accompaniment with smooth connections, while executing extreme dynamics of fff in one hand and pppp in the other; perhaps not always did we hear pppppppp – the very extreme pianissimo that Ligeti unfairly asked for!That certainly is a musical conundrum. Sparkling articulation, virtuosic activity, cascading crystalised tones with immensely accented and thunderous bass notes, showed why Cassomenos is an exciting player to see.
Fanfares was a stimulating opening work, which also gave us a surprising resolution, an ending with a few slow, descending spaced tones.
Maintaining the momentum and intensity of the program, Cassomenos launched almost directly into Chaconne by Sofia Gubaidulina with explosive and loud atonal chords. Composed in 1962, this bold, assertive work was testimony to the composer’s fascination with improvisation and with the tone and free colours of percussion instruments. The assertive harmony in the opening theme became a basis for very contrasting ‘variations’, with polyrhythms, strident continuous octaves in one or both hands, and ornately decorative, mathematically defiant notation and wild cadenza-like phrases bravely re-inventing ideas of a classical Chaconne. Cassomenos revelled in the mountainous musical language of this work, always able to bring out vibrant and dramatic orchestral colours, so loud and declamatory, with great stamina and endurance, yet he could also calm the dramatic forces in an instant, when a warmer questioning or brooding element was required.
Having programmed these two immense “entrée” works before Beethoven’s Grand Sonata for the Fortepiano – the Hammerklavier Sonata No 29 in B-flat, Op 106, Cassomenos barely paused before ascending the next musical mountain. In just a few seconds he had triumphantly tossed the finished pieces to the side, and with an air of authority, confidence and purpose, drew our full attention to the opening fanfare-like, percussive fortissimo chords of the main work. From Beethoven’s last period of composing came one of the greatest, and longest, challenging and almost unplayable sonatas of all time. Bold and adventurous, written as the composer’s deafness was increasing and he was no longer performing in public, the Hammerklavier is a challenge to the best concert pianists of every generation. First performed by a young Liszt in Paris in 1836, it was a favourite of Barenboim’s during Covid lockdown, and tonight heard in a highly gratifying and masterly performance by Cassomenos; a live performance of this piece makes us feel more than just the soul of Beethoven. In a work as immense as this one, isn’t that what performers feel too – an historical connection with this extraordinary composer and those who perform it?
Quite a magical highlight came in the complex third movement Adagio Sostenuto, where extensive high rippling and flowing figurations were spell-binding and a feeling of stillness and small drops of sorrow lightly flowed from the piano’s upper register over softly submerged left hand chords.
Cassomenos proved his command of the technical challenges as if they were well-known pathways he had climbed before, with clear articulation and colour through the fourth movement’s elevated and elongated trills and a ground-breaking three-voice fugue that defies any baroque association with that form.
Cassomenos selected an intelligent and intensely alluring program of three grand and passionate works. He led us successfully over the highest peaks and mountain ranges that a solo pianist can face. The audience greatly applauded his stamina, musical interpretation and high achievement in a memorable recital.
Imageo courtesy of Australian Digital Concert Hall.
Julie McErlain reviewed “Hammerklavier”, performed by Stefan Cassomenos as part of the Kawai Piano Series at Athenaeum 2 on May 12, 2022.